Oil companies have been given permission to carry out exploration work in waters west of Shetland under the government’s latest licensing round.
Amid concerns over safety in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, 45 licences covering 99 blocks have been held back for further environmental studies, but these are mainly in the English Channel and Irish Sea. In total 144 exploration licences were granted.
Energy minister Charles Hendry claimed around 20 per cent of remaining reserves are expected to be found west of Shetland.
The announcement came after oil giant Chevron admitted a deep water drilling accident in its Lagavulin field 160 miles north-west of Shetland could prove worse than the BP disaster.
Managing director of Chevron UK Richard Cohagan said Lagavulin could release up to 77,000 barrels of oil a day if a similar incident happened there.
That is double the worst possible scenario of 35,000 barrels previously forecast by the company – and 25 per cent more oil than flowed into American waters following the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion, which killed 11 men in April.
Chevron is reported to have revised its forecast after reviewing all its data released in light of the BP accident.
In September Greenpeace activists halted the progress of Chevron’s drill ship<i> Stena Carron</i> as she attempted to reach drilling grounds in Lagavulin.
Speaking to <i>The Shetland Times</i> campaigner Ben Ayliffe said the oil giant’s latest admission confirmed the group’s darkest fears.
“This is exactly the sort of risk Greenpeace was talking about when we said the government should not grant consent for Chevron to commence deep sea drilling north-west of Shetland,” he said.
“It really does expose the fallacy that is at the heart of the government’s licensing arrangements for deep-water drilling.
“It’s blatantly wrong that they should allow Chevron to start drilling in the Lagavulin field without, in any way, an adequate assessment of health and safety.”
He said there were “an increasing number of spills” being reported across the globe, and added “creaking infrastructure” being used by the UK industry contrasted with claims of improved safety levels.
“Chevron have employed the same design for a blow-out procedure as used in Maconda. People have every right to be concerned,” he added.
However a Chevron spokesman stressed the flow rate used in the company’s oil spill model was a worst case scenario based on the highest rate at which a well could flow.
“This is an exploration well where the expectation is that it will have an 11 per cent chance chance of encountering significant hydrocarbons,” he said.
“In the event it does encounter hydrocarbons, based on our geologic modelling, the figure of 77,000 barrels is at the very highest end of our expectation.
“There would have to be a failure of all the barriers that are in place to prevent loss of containment – our west of Shetland wells have multiple barriers and our on-site managers are highly experienced in well control.
“They have the knowledge and the authority to shut-in the well at the first indication of a well control event.”
He added serious well control events were “very rare” with almost 7,000 wells drilled in the UK continental shelf without a blow-out in the last 20 years.
On Tuesday industry experts told MPs on the energy and climate change committee the UK’s safety standards were far superior to those operated in the States.
Head of the Health and Safety Executive’s offshore division Steve Walker said: “In the UK we have a safety regime whereby before an operator brings a drilling rig into the UK, or operates a fixed platform, they have to prepare a safety case for the Health and Safety Executive to approve. The US don’t have that,” he said.
“Twenty-one days before you drill a well you have to send technical data about how that well is going to be drilled to the Health and Safety Executive, so that gives us an opportunity to assess that whole design and have discussions with the company and take action if we need to. The US don’t have that.”
He said a system of independent verification operated for well designs as well as a “sophisticated inspection regime” which kept safety to the fore.
“I’d like to think we have a different safety culture compared with that in the Gulf of Mexico.”
However SIC councillor Jonathan Wills, who was also giving evidence to the committee, said the industry could ill-afford to take any chances with Shetland’s rich variety of marine wildlife and plankton.
Dr Wills insisted not enough was known about the use of dispersement in deep water areas.
“Basically, nature clings up. The only question is how long it takes and how bad the effects are,” said Dr Wills, who described himself as someone who had examined the oil industry for the last 20 years.
“I haven’t seen any containment, dispersal or clean-up equipment that works in the open Atlantic.
“It didn’t work in the flat-calm of the Gulf of Mexico. I’m afraid the old statement that prevention is better than cure … it’s a truism, obviously, but there isn’t any cure.
“The only option in town is prevention – we have to make sure this doesn’t happen.”
He added: “I know that to the west of Shetland are some of the most fragile and bio-diverse eco-systems in the world. We damage that at our peril.”